In a magisterial tour d’horizon, M.L.R. Smith and Niall McCrae apply their extensive knowledge of the Cold War to the Ukraine Crisis and conclude it’s likely to end in a protracted stalemate.
For natural sceptics, the COVID-19 pandemic of the last two years has reinforced and validated their lack of faith in the wisdom of experts, whose prognostications turned out to be a masterclass in predictive ineptitude. As Philip Tetlock’s study of Expert Political Judgment (2008) showed, so-called experts – or at least those anointed as such by the political and media class – are no more accurate in forecasting long-term trends than the average man or woman in the street. Tetlock’s work underlined that while proficiency in a particular discipline may enhance the capacity of the specialist to explain the past, it offers no guide to the future.
With this cautionary principle in mind, it is advisable to remain circumspect in offering commentary upon the war in the Ukraine. Even for those of us who have studied war for decades and are familiar with military concepts and strategies, who are veterans of the Cold War, who have analysed Soviet/Russian military operations, who have travelled through the territories of the former USSR and can claim to have knowledge of the Russophone world, it is wisest to observe rather than pontificate or prophesy.
A view from afar
To those of us with at least some appreciation of military and strategic matters, much of the media coverage of Ukraine is jarringly simplistic, but also contradictory. With the relentless portrayals of Russian reversals, miscalculations, over-stretch and humiliation a reader might be forgiven for thinking that Ukrainian forces are on the verge of marching into Red Square and perhaps already pounding up the stairs of the Kremlin to Vladimir Putin’s office. At the same time, the unprotected Ukrainian people were allegedly facing genocide. We exaggerate, of course, but only slightly. The point is that despite the blitz of commentary and the prognoses of a gallery of experts, there are still many gaps in our understanding that the media appear unable or reluctant to address. In stating this, we are conscious that we are asserting our own claim to expertise, and that the hypocritical cry of ‘listen to us, not them’ could be a charge laid against us.
The difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, however, is that our primary point of departure is the acknowledgement of how little we know. We can make educated guesses, of course, but cannot be sure of anything. We are not pitching for the attention of policy-makers, and don’t expect to be consulted by government officials or asked to write op-eds for major newspapers. We are simply a couple of wizened Cold War veterans, trying to make sense of a complex, tragic situation with the benefit of a degree of hindsight. We take no sides. Our goal is to seek more understanding, not push narratives, by journeying back into our Cold War pasts to explore some of the implications for the present.
Land of confusion
Wars are, at the best of times, theatres of confusion. This is especially so in the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There is little clarity about Russia’s aims or original concept of operations. Reporting of the war has, moreover, been marked by a profusion of inaccuracies and propaganda. The blizzard of social media commentary has been especially distorting. Russia is the aggressor, having invaded the sovereign territory of its neighbour. Being one of the few knowns in the conflict, this leads to an easy moral narrative of right and wrong. Subtlety, nuance and any delving into the complex origins and implications of the war consequently cuts against the grain of a plot line that conveys a drama of heroic Ukrainian resistance against the Russian bear.
Some historical reflection, however, suggests that the story is not so straightforward. There was no sovereign country of Ukraine before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The original name of Russia was ‘Kiev Rus’, and Kiev was known as ‘the mother of all Russian towns’. In Ukraine and particularly in Kiev there are several significant all-Russian, Christian sanctuaries, such as Kiev-Pecherskaya Lavra. As Russia grew eastwards and northwards, occupying new territories, it changed its capital several times (Great Novgorod, Moscow, St. Petersburg and back to Moscow). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area covered by Ukraine today was Malorossia (literally, Little Russia).
Millions of Russians died over the centuries protecting this richly agricultural land. One of the bloodiest wars was that of 1853 to 1856 between imperial Russia and a military coalition including Great Britain. When the Soviet Union was formed in 1922 the vast territory was divided into 16 republics, including Ukraine. Forming the western part of Black Earth Country, Ukraine was known as the ‘bread basket’, but it was also heavily industrialised under the communist system. From maize to metallurgy, the agricultural and industrial output of Ukraine was vital to the Soviet Union.
The USSR, however, left a very dark stain on Ukraine. Under the brutal regime of Josef Stalin, a great famine in the 1930s killed millions in the region. The Holodomor resulted from the collectivisation of farms and drastic requisition of wheat by the Kremlin. Perhaps not surprisingly, many Ukrainians welcomed Hitler’s forces in the Second World War. In 1941, when the German army occupied Lviv, the Ukrainian National League in Galicia proclaimed an independent state, but the leaders were arrested by the invaders and sent to concentration camps. Engaging in guerrilla warfare in the late 1940s, the nationalists in western Ukraine were eventually suppressed by Stalin.
Such subjugation, now being repeated by Putin, arouses sympathies for the Ukrainian people. But terrible crimes have been committed in the struggle for nationhood. Nationalist leader Stepan Bandera was a ‘blood and soil’ extremist who directed pogroms of Poles and Jews. Bandera (1909-1959) is celebrated by many Ukrainians as a national hero, despite his gruesome record of ethnic cleansing. His legacy is seen in the Azov battalion, which openly displays Nazi slogans and insignia.
In 1954 the oblast of Crimea was administratively placed within the adjoining Ukrainian republic. Perhaps this was due to Khrushchev’s guilt over the famine. At the time, nobody expected the USSR to fall apart. Numerous former Soviet republics became independent states, but Ukraine was the biggest loss, not least because a large proportion of that country is ethnically Russian. Meddling by the West, through NATO and the European Union, has heightened tension between the Ukrainian political establishment and those of its citizens who continue to identify with Russia.
That sinking feeling
From the very start of the war, we had that sinking feeling about the direction in which media coverage was going to go. Clichés, cod psychology and sensationalist assertions seemed to rapidly constitute the norm. Putin was potty, and having taken leave of his senses, planned to conquer Ukraine within the space of a weekend. That he failed in this objective was evidence of military failure and miscalculation. Within the space of a week, these points were pushed by pundits as if they were accepted truths across the visual and print media.
Not only did these commentators speak as if they had access to the Russian battle-plan but acted as if they were practising psychiatrists with intimate knowledge of Putin’s state of mind. As anyone with some insight would understand, no Western analyst, no matter how authoritative, could possibly know any of these things. One could speculate about Putin’s initial objective and conclude that any optimistic vision that he may have had for a quick victory was unlikely. But the idea that the Russian armed forces would have this as their one and only plan always stretched credibility.
The vastness of Ukrainian territory to be occupied, the complexity of waging combined military operations and a knowledge of traditional Soviet/Russian war fighting techniques (based on waves and echelons), renders the belief that the Russians entertained an ultra-rapid conquest unrealistic even if you project contemporary Western concepts of ‘shock and awe’ tactics onto the less sophisticated Russian armed forces.
Meanwhile, the ‘Mad Vlad’ school of thought – promulgated by a legion of politicians and media commentators, claiming that Putin had gone ‘crazy’, was ‘irrational’, ‘delusional’ and a ‘megalomaniac’ – represented an even worse kind of analytical response. Reducing Russian aggression to an unfalsifiable claim of individual psychopathology not only says little of value, but is self-exculpatory, because, as Joanna Williams argues, it obscures an informed understanding of the origins of the war in favour of an explanation that “says that everything was well with the world until suddenly, out of the blue, Putin went mad”.
Of course, all was not well with the world prior to the invasion. Russia’s relationship with the nations that constitute the Western alliance, and the tangle these powers have had with the politics of Ukraine has been long and vexed. Much of the story that has led up to the Ukraine war is not just one of Russian bellicosity and irredentism, but also of the failure of the Western imagination at the end of the Cold War, of Western strategy and of Western deterrence.
Western intelligence gets it right (for once)
Before criticising Western policy, a success should be acknowledged. Western intelligence, for once, proved correct in predicting Russia’s invasion. Weeks before the invasion, British and American intelligence agencies had been detecting the build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders. Despite the disbelief that Putin’s forces would risk a full-scale assault, intelligence officials intensified their warnings of impending Russian action.
The accuracy of Western intelligence analysis has arguably solidified a unitary response by NATO countries and enhanced the capacity of Western governments to wage an effective strategic communications campaign against Russia. The basis of intelligence success may in part be a response to the sense that Western agencies were caught napping by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 but might also be accounted for by the longer-term experience they possess in penetrating the Soviet/Russian state bureaucracy.
In contrast to the difficulty of gaining human intelligence on non-European and non-state actors like the Iraqi regime prior to 2003 or Islamic State, Western agencies have had an extensive Russian focus going back to the early days of the Cold War. Consequently, the knowledge of Soviet intentions gained within Western intelligence in the Cold War has attained a high degree of perspicacity. This includes accurate assessments of the long-term economic viability of the Soviet Union, despite the frequency of the allegation that the intelligence agencies failed to predict the collapse of the USSR.
As an example, in the early 1980s, CIA appreciation of the paranoia that the U.S. administration’s hawkish ‘evil empire’ oratory was inducing among the Soviet gerontocracy in the Politburo led to a cooling of anti-communist rhetoric in Ronald Reagan’s second term. This easing was to pave the way for the summit between Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at Hofdi House, in October 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The thawing of relations led to a period of genuine optimism in U.S.-Soviet diplomacy in the glasnost era, resulting for example, in the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, which reduced nuclear forces in Europe.
That hyper-power moment
Given the shrewdness with which Western intelligence perceived Soviet intentions, it is surprising, possibly, that similar acuity was not much in evidence in the post-Soviet era. A lot has been said already of the problems caused by the eastward expansion of NATO, which offended Russian amour propre, and the part this may have played in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The origins of these tensions, however, derive from what can be regarded as a historic failure of the Western imagination at the end of the Cold War.
The events following the collapse of the USSR in 1990 and 1991 should be recalled. The end of the bipolar system of ideological hostility, superpower confrontation, a nuclear armed stand-off, and the subjugation of Eastern Europe, was greeted with much rejoicing. There was no doubting that the system of communist tyranny had been vanquished. In that respect, however, the ideological ‘moment’ – the triumph of Western values of political and economic freedom – represented an opportunity for the United States and its allies to embrace the Russian Federation in mutual respect and partnership in constructing a new post-Cold War order.
From what we understand of Russian sensibilities during this era, a sense of magnanimity and reciprocation was something deeply wished for. A majority of Russians may have had little nostalgia for communist rule, but they nevertheless were still heirs to a tradition of Russian messianism, to use Peter J.S. Duncan’s phrase, that held Russia to be a ‘Third Rome’, a chosen people and a great power in Eurasia, of which the USSR was an emotional, if imperfect, embodiment. The grinding down of the Nazi war machine during the Great Patriotic War represented its highest achievement.
Having, as many Russians saw it, voluntarily dissolved the Soviet Union, peacefully relinquishing 14 republics and 30% of its territory, as well as releasing Eastern Europe from bondage, the hope was that Russia would be welcomed as a key partner in the building of a new post-Cold War order: an order that recognised the demise of the bankrupt Soviet system, but one that still respected Russia as a major power with its own spheres of interest.
Russia takes the End of History road, and gets lost
It did not work out that way. Instead, the United States – its Government and most of the Washington establishment – embarked upon an ideological mission that saw in the collapse of Soviet power the victory of the West. As any good strategic theorist knows, for your victory to be of any lasting meaning, generosity, rather than triumphalism, should be the guiding principle. Crowing and rubbing your success in the noses of your adversaries is inadvisable since resentment and the seed of future hostility is likely to be the long-term consequence.
Yet, the ‘End of History’ thesis posited the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism as a the only viable ideology left standing after 1991. This world view heralded the dawn of the American unipolar moment. The moral imperative contained in this version of Western self-glorification was that under American leadership, ‘Western’ values of human rights, free-trade, capitalist economics, liberal modes of politics and governance should be asserted as a ‘universal’ system of rule. Western liberal values were therefore ‘globalised’ as a one-size-fits-all set of arrangements with which states of the international system had no option but to align unless they wanted to be consigned to the club of rogue states – North Korea, Cuba and Iran: impoverished, marginalised pariahs.
There is no doubt that the unipolar moment could be intoxicating. We remember the era well: the sense that the world could be re-moulded towards liberal norms, that problems could be fixed by the technocratic application of ‘good governance’, dollops of international aid and, where required, humanitarian intervention. It possessed its own messianic spirit, typified most graphically by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 1999, ‘Chicago Speech’, that articulated the rights of the ‘international community’ to intervene in states of concern, helping to frame the ideology of what more widely came to be called ‘neo-liberalism’.
Early on, though, there were signs that the assertion of historical inevitability embodied in the ‘end of history’ unipolar moment was beginning to make other nations bristle. By 1992-93, for example, Singapore’s premier, Lee Kuan Yew and the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, along with other Southeast Asian leaders, exhibited annoyance at Western hubris and posited the superiority of ‘Asian values’ against those of a decadent West. During this period, however, Russia decided to go with the ‘end of history’ project under the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin, and underwent a crash course in market economics under the guidance of Harvard-trained advisers.
The result was not the reform, renewal and reinvigoration of Russia’s economy and society along Western capitalist lines. Instead, a vast mafia state was created. State utilities were sold off via corrupt patronage networks. Vast fortunes were made for a handful of super-rich oligarchs. Large parts of the industrial sector were devastated. Wages collapsed. Savings were wiped out. Unemployment became rife. Living standards for the majority plummeted. The end of state support for housing and pensions reduced many to penury, hawking their possessions in the street just to buy food for their families.
The failure of Western imagination at the end of the Cold War
The humiliation and hardship of this period is hard to overstate. If one wants a sense of the contempt that many ordinary Russians feel for the West, its liberal values, social freedoms, and democratic norms, and the attraction to the rule of strong leaders like Putin (and the war in Ukraine), it is well to remember the determining influence of this period. It is no accident that opinion poll evidence suggests that support for liberalising political figures in the Yeltsin or Gorbachev mould is minuscule because they symbolise weakness and temporising before Western interests. This is something that Western advocates of regime-change in Moscow should bear in mind, not least because in some quarters Putin is regarded as an over cautious ‘moderate’.
On his assumption of the presidency in 2000 Putin continued to hold out the prospect of a positive relationship with the West, expressing a wish to join NATO (reiterating a goal articulated by Boris Yeltsin as early as 1991, with Russia joining the NATO sponsored Partnership for Peace programme in 1994). After 2001, Putin also very much wanted to align Russian efforts with the American ‘global war on terror’ against the forces of Islamist extremism. These friendly overtures were rebuffed, so it was felt in Russia, by a West more concerned with placating the demands of Eastern European nations to be integrated into the Western alliance system at the expense of Russian geopolitical sensibilities.
Added to this sense of offence, the differential treatment that China received in the same era did not go unnoticed in Moscow. Having brutally cracked down on its own democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, instead of being isolated and condemned communist China was fêted and coddled. It was admitted into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, while Western powers displayed an often-fawning deference to its own geopolitical concerns, whether that meant tiptoeing around Tibet and the Dalai Lama, ignoring human rights abuses in Xinjiang or being submissive to its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The failure of the Western imagination at the end of the Cold War, thus forms the mise-en-scène to much of the tensions over NATO expansion in subsequent years. The inability of Western strategic planners to appreciate Russia’s historical geopolitical insecurities has been something that scholars like John Mearsheimer have suggested as a major factor contributing to Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. Yet, accommodating Russian demands for limits to be set on NATO’s eastern expansion into Russia’s sphere of influence can look like cynicism: bending to Moscow’s aggression and conceding Russia’s territorial designs on its neighbours. As the historian, Dominic Sandbrook in the pages of UnHerd, argued: “Appeasement, as recommended by certain so-called realist professors of international relations, strikes me as not merely morally contemptible but stupidly self-defeating.”
Those pesky ‘realists’
The problem with dismissing the warnings of those ‘realist professors’ as morally bankrupt appeasement misses the point that their arguments have been continuous, coherent and, as events have shown, unnervingly accurate. The views of those like Mearsheimer have been echoed down the years by eminent observers of international politics like Henry Kissinger and the architect of the U.S.’s Cold War strategy of containment, George Kennan, who in 1998 wrote that the impetus to expand NATO into Eastern Europe would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion”; would have an “adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy”, and would “restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations”.
In Britain, such concerns were also voiced from the late 1990s onwards by policy analysts such as Ken Aldred, Michael Clarke and Michael MccGwire. These people were not apologists for Russian imperialism. They were impeccable liberals with a deep commitment to Western security and defence, but who possessed a keen appreciation of standard operating principles of Russian (and formerly Soviet) foreign policy, and an honest understanding of the limits of idealism in international politics. Their offices were sometimes just down the corridor from our own, and we recall that their warnings about the follies of NATO’s eastern ambitions rang loud and clear. In 2008, MccGwire and Clarke declared NATO’s plans “a policy error of historic importance”.
In hindsight, then, Western planners would have been well served had they paid more heed to the voices of the ‘realist professors’. Criticising them now as appeasers says nothing of analytical importance and merely highlights the errors of those who ignored them. For some in the West, so it seems, the adage persists that it is one thing to be seen as a modern-day Cassandra, but the greater crime is to be proven right. Prophets truly exist without honour.
The failure of Western deterrence
The point brings us to the little scrutinised causes of Western failures of deterrence in preventing a war in Ukraine in the first place. One important question that is rarely answered in the Western media is quite why there exists a mysterious, and some might contend, somewhat unhealthy obsession with the politics of Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of the Western alliance system and has never existed in a sphere that might be construed as falling within a Western orbit of influence.
Why, then, does the country possess such an important place in the attentions of Western foreign policy? Why, for example, did NATO continuously hold out the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, when it knew this to be deeply antagonistic to Russia? Why did Western civil society groups and the European Union seemingly play a crucial role in the Maidan revolution of 2014 that removed the constitutionally elected, pro-Russian, Government of Victor Yanukovitch from power? Why did the U.S. Government take an interest in jointly developing chemical/biological warfare facilities with Ukraine? Why did the current U.S. President’s son, Hunter Biden, gain a position with the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, despite not knowing anything about energy policy?
All these questions remain enigmatic and hard to fathom. What they do intimate, however, is that Western commercial and political interests have been more than happy to use Ukraine to play a geopolitical game against Russia. That would be easy to understand if there were any obvious areas of direct national interest at stake, but it is hard to discern just what the strategic advantages there are in throwing support at a country that is itself one of the poorest in Europe and run perhaps just as much by corrupt oligarchs as contemporary Russia may be.
The trouble is that if you are seeking to play geopolitics by poking the Russian bear, and attempting to detach Ukraine from the Russian orbit, it can hardly come as a surprise if the bear turns round and strikes back, as those realist professors foretold it would. This might not have been as much a tragic folly if the West had exhibited a degree of resolve in the months before Russia’s invasion. Instead, the red lines that the West may have drawn to deter a Russian invasion were systematically blurred. Firstly, the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces in Afghanistan in August 2021, after two decades of futile effort to restore the country to stability, was a huge blow to Western credibility, and it is likely that Vladimir Putin took this as a sign of a lack of Western resolve. Secondly, President Joe Biden’s ill-advised comments in January 2022 where he appeared to hint that NATO and the West would not react to a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine, can be only be have seen as ‘green light’ by the Kremlin. In that sense, Putin’s decision to invade, was not the product of madness, but calculation in the balance of risk, one that that Western policy has been only too willing to tilt in Russia’s favour.
Confronting some hard realities
The fact that the two single greatest setbacks in Western foreign policy in recent memory – Afghanistan and Ukraine – occurred within the space of year – think the fall of Saigon (only ten times worse) and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (only ten times worse) – speaks to a staggering set of failures to add to the depressing list of Western debacles over the course of two decades. That these two crises arose under the same U.S. administration, moreover, highlights the increasingly unavoidable fact that the current President is not up to the job of providing any coherent leadership. That his statements so frequently must be ‘clarified’ and ‘walked back’ by his administration, suggests someone who is only nominally in charge of the ship of state and cannot be anything but a source of confusion in terms of the presentation of a coordinated Western response. His cognitive failings are not anything but sad, but neither are they something to be brushed aside when they result in potential confrontation with a nuclear power.
We understand how excruciating this must be for a foreign policy establishment that hitched its colours so comprehensively to the pro-Biden, anti-Trump mast in 2020. All the talk of having the ‘adults back in charge’ has been embarrassingly exposed for the naïve fatuity it always was. These are the same ‘experts’ who oversaw the fiascos of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In Europe they have also helped shape the green energy agenda that has resulted in over-dependence on Russian oil and gas, and a policy that has provided one billion euros worth of military aid to Ukraine since the invasion while at the time giving Russia 35 billion euros for its energy supplies.
Some commentators like Sherelle Jacobs of the Daily Telegraph argue that the invasion of Ukraine has rallied the West – defying its detractors, facing down Putin’s threats of nuclear war and demonstrating its willingness to sanction Russia and provide Ukraine with military support. The “West’s high-stakes tactics”, she maintains, “are a geopolitical game changer. One that compels its adversaries to rethink drastically their immediate strategic goals, as well as their assumptions about a ‘declining’ West”. We shall see.
It is possible that Western material support has helped stabilise Ukraine’s position and compelled Russia to rethink its military options (we don’t know for sure). Even so, whether a sanctions policy that has so far not garnered much in the way of international support outside North America, Europe and Australasia, and is currently resulting mainly in driving up commodity prices for the average Western consumer, is sustainable over the long term is something that for the time being remains in question. The broader ‘geopolitical game changer’ wrought by the war in Ukraine, however, may also be more serious for the West in ejecting Russia once and for all from any prospect of integration into a Western civilisational order and into the clutches of a non-Western geopolitical sphere dominated by the likes of China.
Dissecting the Russian Way of War
Discerning the long term impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the implications this has for the West and the world order more generally, ultimately rests upon how the military situation works out on the ground. At the current moment, this is the least known, most unpredictable facet of the conflict. As described at the beginning of this essay, a great deal of Western media commentary has focused on Russian losses and setbacks. There is no doubt that the Kiev Government has waged a very successful information war, designed to win international sympathy and, crucially, guarantees of military support to keep Ukraine in the war.
Given the extent and volume of reports, it seems likely that Ukrainian resistance has been far stronger than anticipated and that Russia has suffered significant military reverses, especially in its failed encirclement of Kiev. Whether the media narrative of relentless Russian military failure represents the only side of the story, however (given how little information there is from the Russian side), remains to be seen.
Those of us reared on studies of Soviet military power during the Cold War will have been instinctively wary of overrating the capabilities of Russian forces. During years of military stand-off in the Europe, Soviet (non-nuclear) conventional power in terms of numbers and equipment was often regarded as overwhelming. With the crème of Red Army forces – the 3rd Shock Army, 2nd Guards Tank Army, 20th Guards Army – poised across the East German Plain, offensive Soviet military power looked highly formidable.
The performance of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, however, began to reveal a very different picture. Students of strategic studies in this period will have been familiar with Andrew Cockburn’s extensively researched 1983 book, The Threat: Inside the Soviet War Machine. Cockburn’s study did much to reveal the parlous state of the Soviet armed forces: low morale, inadequate training, badly maintained and malfunctioning equipment, inept commanders, poor discipline and unmotivated conscripts who felt driven to drain the hydraulic fluid from their vehicles for an alcoholic fix or to get high by chewing dried boot polish.
In the post-Soviet era, the degradation of Russian military power continued. The performance of the Russian army in the first Chechen War (1994-96) is generally rated as lamentable. Meanwhile, the air force could barely afford to get airborne, and the naval fleet declined into little more than a flotilla of rust-buckets. The loss of the flagship nuclear submarine, Kursk, in 2000 due to an accident caused by a faulty torpedo exploding in the forward compartment, inflicted huge damage on Russia’s military prestige. Arguably, then, little has changed between then and now if reports of the endless litany of Russian military incompetence in Ukraine are to be believed.
That said, while Russian forces have evidently been forced to pull their armies back from the capital Kiev, it is also the case that the Russians have made substantial inroads into Ukrainian territory to the South and in the East in the Donbass region. Moreover, from what we understand, the Russian armed forces have, over the years, evolved a slow, methodical and attritional concept of operations, that is at least somewhat better suited to the reality of the country’s military capabilities. The Russian tactical approach was demonstrated in the Battle of Grozny in 1999 during the Second Chechen War (1999-2000) and the Battle of Aleppo in Syria (2012-16); long, drawn out siege warfare involving artillery bombardment, rocket artillery, cluster munitions and fuel-air explosives.
The results are not pretty: they are slow, brutal and immensely destructive of the urban environment. But this seems to be the plan in store for Ukraine, if the battles for the southern Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol are any guide. In making this assessment, it is advisable to avoid too many invidious comparisons with the ability of Western armed forces to wage more clinical, high-tempo, high tech manoeuvre warfare. This is not the Russian way of war.
As any decent strategist will tell you, technical capabilities on the battlefield are only of value if they can be made to advance your political objectives. As Western forces have repeatedly shown in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, while you may be able to decapitate an adversary regime in short order via a campaign of shock and awe with precision guided weapons, it offers no guarantee of long-term success if you cannot convert your military prowess into political gains on the ground. It matters less, in other words, that you have certain destructive capacities, than what you seek to do with them.
In that regard, the significant question to ask is what the Russians are seeking to gain in political terms from their invasion. Are they waging a limited campaign to shave off the Eastern territories of Ukraine? Are they wanting to use their territorial seizures as bargaining counters in negotiations to compel Ukraine to accept neutrality, and to rule out membership of NATO, and possibly the EU? Or is the goal to eliminate Ukraine as an independent sovereign state? At the time of writing, these questions are unknowable and at best answers can only be inferred.
What might be deduced from the Russian military campaign so far is that its preference for a strategy of ‘rubblisation’ (as the Soviet policy of depopulating villages and towns in Afghanistan between 1980 and 1983 was termed), is that these attritional tactics are more conducive to holding ground, and that the long-term goal of the Russians is to physically incorporate territory into its state boundaries. How far that goal extends to the unconquered parts of Ukraine remains one of the great mysteries of the war.
Unless the Russians are willing to learn the lessons of their military mistakes in the early part of the war, reorganise and reconstruct their armed forces and mobilise their human and material resources for renewed offensive operations – and given the difficulty of the Ukrainian Government selling a ceasefire to its population based on the relinquishment of large parts of its eastern territories – it is difficult to imagine this conflict coming to an end quickly or assuming a more mobile character. The prospectus is a slow, grinding conflict along the contested frontiers of eastern and southern Ukraine. At best, the war, in other words, has all the likelihood of degenerating into another ‘frozen conflict’ that is often said to characterise ongoing disputes that have afflicted the Caucasus region such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Conclusion: Back to the Future?
The war in Ukraine is characterised by a vast number of unknowns. Russian military aims remain vague. The military situation on the ground is uncertain. To talk of one side ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ is, at best, speculative and depends on what one means by those terms. What we can say is that the war delivers us back to the ‘good old days’ of Cold War Kremlinology, where analysts are left to weigh up the balance of probabilities within Moscow’s decision making.
A classic political question – the stuff of many an undergraduate essay in the 1980s – was why the Soviet Union chose to invade Afghanistan in 1979. Was it grounded on a historic geopolitical fear of encirclement? Was it opportunism, based on perceived Western weakness? Was it based on ideological insecurity, which could not tolerate the prospect of a Communist ally slipping out of the Soviet orbit, like the interventions in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968? Or was it a case of pure aggression to expand Soviet power and to reinforce its claim to superpower status and extend the frontiers of the communist sphere?
In the absence of any transparency in Soviet decision making, analysts were left to ponder and guess the motives. It seems we are left with similar questions with respect to Ukraine. Why did the Russians risk invasion? Can it be understood through a geopolitical lens that views NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and Western meddling in Ukrainian politics, as threats to Russian security that it inevitably felt it had to deal with? Will Russia be satisfied with guarantees of Ukrainian neutrality? Or are Russian aims more expansive and ideological, which deny the right of Ukraine to even exist, and ultimately mean it will have to secure its borders by pushing westward towards Poland and the Carpathian Mountains?
In the best traditions of undergraduate hedging about why the USSR intervened in Afghanistan, the answer to why Russia invaded Ukraine is likely to constitute a mix of motives. But will we ever really know? Winston Chuchill’s description of Russia rings as true today as it did in 1939: “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”